journalism, science

Freeman Dyson and the Great Big World

Freeman Dyson is a global warming skeptic. This should not come as a surprise.

the cover of the new york times magazine with portrait of dysonLast Sunday, the New York Times Magazine featured a profile of the physicist, now in his 80s, as its cover story. He’s been ensconced at the Institute for Advanced Study for the last several decades.

I liked the piece. There are some questions, which I’ve heard a couple of editors express, about why he merited such a long profile, and the cover, no less. But that’s really a question of editorial inclinations.

The great strength of the article is the sensitive portrayal of Dyson himself. He is a character, a charming and sweet man whose life experience reads like fiction. Nicholas Dawidoff, who wrote the piece, describes Dyson’s smile, and his laugh, “so hearty it shakes him,” which is absolutely true. The global warming controversy seems secondary, though I’d guess it was originally the big reason this story was picked up by the magazine. Ultimately, we have this story of a man who is happy with his life, and has always done whatever suited him, rather than whatever the establishment expected. After all, he did switch from being an Englishman to being an American, and from mathematics to physics to activism and writing.

I interviewed Dyson almost nine years ago, in April 2001. As the years pass, I keep thinking how fortunate I am that my first in-depth, sit-down interview with anyone was with him.

You can see a kind of blueprint for the magazine story in my interview, from the series of Dyson’s greatest hits of applied scientific craziness (Project Orion, the so-called Dyson sphere, major genetic re-engineering), to his deep sense of humanity and obligation to the less fortunate.

I was also introduced to Dyson’s skepticism in that interview. He criticized people who were wary of genetically modified foods. He applauded gentrification. He recounted a story about NASA’s emphasis on public relations over science. He dismissed sustainability, “because what does it mean?” As far as Dyson was concerned, “sustainability” was—and, one could contend, still is—vague enough to mean whatever its promoters want.

You can download my interview, conducted for the Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science, as a PDF here.

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At the bottom of my web site, in the footer section, there is a phrase: “It is a great big world.” After my interview with Dyson, as I was about to leave, Dyson told me about flying to China, and sitting next to a boy who spent most of the trip staring out the window. At one point, the boy turned to him, and said, “It’s a great big world!.” Indeed, it is. Easy to forget.

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China, environment, publictransport

The Beijing Underground; and Meltdown Live

Roving China correspondent Josh Chin has filed a brief video report with the Wall Street Journal on Beijing’s growing transit system. It’s done well, and for being just a few minutes long, feels awfully comprehensive. My favorite is this Chinese kid who grew up in Switzerland and in documenting the entire subway system online.

And if you’re online right now, and interested in such things, you can watch a live stream of Meltdown: The Impact of Climate Change on the Tibetan Plateau, hosted by the Asia Society and chinadiaologue, by visiting the society’s main webpage. Here is the day’s schedule, all times Eastern Standard:

8:00 am: Registration and Coffee

8:45 am: Welcome (Webcast begins)

9:00 am: Tibet on Film

* Michael Zhao, Center on US-China Relations
* David Breashears, Arcturus Pictures

10:00 am: Himalayan Meltdown

* Lonnie Thompson, School of Earth Sciences, Ohio State University
* Yao Tandon, Chinese Academy of Sciences

11:30 am: Plateau Survival

* Emily Yeh, University of Colorado, Boulder
* Daniel Miller, US Agency for International Development, New Delhi
* Yonten Nyima, University of Colorado, Boulder
* Julia Klein, Colorado State University

1:00 – 1:45 pm: Break

1:45 pm: A Region at Risk

* Saleemul Huq, Climate Change Group, International Institute for Environment and Development
* Katherine Morton, Department of International Relations, Australian National University
* Lara Hansen, WWF Global Climate Change Program

3:00 pm: Organizer Remarks

* Robert Barnett, Modern Tibetan Studies, Columbia University
* Elizabeth Economy, Council on Foreign Relations
* Isabel Hilton, chinadialogue
* Orville Schell, Asia Society Center on US-China Relations

4:00 pm: Afternoon Keynote Address

* Rajendra Pachauri, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Nobel Laureate

5:00 pm: Closing Reception

(If you have a Mac, you may need to install the latest version of the Flip4Mac plugin to watch the webcast. Check Flip4Mac in your system preferences to see if you need an update, or just click this link to download.)

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China, environment, multimedia

China Green

The Asia Society’s Center on U.S.–China Relations recently published China Green, a multimedia site that will highlight stories of China’s environment. Its initial set of videos and images focus on how climate change is affecting the Tibetan Plateau and the Himalayas, which host the headwaters of most of Asia’s major rivers.

screenshot of China Green website

The Asia Society took its first leap into multimedia and China’s environment last year with its Clearing the Air website, which introduced viewers to the environmental challenges—especially regarding air pollution—that China faces. The most compelling feature of that site is the calendar showing Beijing’s shifting air quality, Room With A View. The calendar is continually updated, its most recent image being of a clear blue sky on Monday, January 12:

image of beijing air

While visiting China Green, be sure to try using the interactive timelines comparing photos of Himalayan glaciers several decades ago with glaciers today. You’ll see what I mean on the opening page of China Green, as it shows the time-lapse loss of the Rongbuk Glacier. And if you know that you’ll be in New York City on January 16th, check out the Asia Society symposium Meltdown: The Impact of Climate Change on the Tibetan Plateau. [Update] If you can’t make it, the Asia Society will stream a live webcast of the event on its site that day.

Disclosure: China Green was produced by people I consider friends and colleagues. I’d like to especially point out the work of Michael Zhao, who has done a great amount of work in both multimedia and China’s relationship with the environment. A notable example of the combination of those being his look at the importation and processing of electronic waste in China, the first coverage of any depth I’ve seen on the subject.

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